Getting Charged Up About Carbon Neutrality

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Wednesday, January 1, 2020
By Rick Cotton, Simon Pek
Photo by iStock/jacoblund
The Gustavson School of Business achieves net-zero carbon emissions while teaching students the importance of sustainable business practices.

Several years ago, the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business in British Columbia, Canada, wanted to take direct responsibility for our carbon footprint—including indirect emissions we generated via travel and commuting. That meant setting an ambitious goal: to achieve carbon neutrality for all of our school’s activities. We are a small, relatively young school—just 29 years old, with 52 full-time faculty. These factors worked in our favor as members of our community joined forces to achieve our goal.

We offset our carbon emissions through several new initiatives. Some of these initiatives were institutional in nature. For example, we opened our interdisciplinary Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation in 2011 and formed a Carbon Neutrality Plus (CN+) committee in 2017. We also took steps to change the behaviors of members of our community by instituting a comprehensive recycling program, promoting Bike to Work Week, and installing a water fountain to encourage people to stop using bottled water. We held formal communitywide challenges that called, for example, for people to eat more plant-based diets or reduce their use of plastics.

We launched these activities after collecting data about our greenhouse gas emissions for nearly ten years. This step was critical to our understanding of our carbon footprint, including year-over-year changes and trends. We create our data reports in partnership with Synergy Enterprises, a local carbon-management consulting firm that assists us with calculations and analysis.

Synergy not only provides us with independent measurement, but also benchmarks our performance against other organizations like ours and offers insights to help us move our sustainability efforts forward. We advise any school pursuing carbon neutrality to start with such systematic measurement, because “what gets measured, gets managed.”

Understanding the Data

An analysis of our data from Synergy revealed that travel was the Gustavson School’s greatest source of carbon emissions. This was not surprising, since 80 percent of our undergraduates and 100 percent of our master’s students have an international study experience. In 2017 alone, travel by our faculty, students, and staff generated 73 percent of our school’s measured carbon emissions—and that figure far surpassed the impact of our use of paper or electricity.

73 percent of our school’s 2017 carbon emissions were generated by the travel of our faculty, students, and staff.

This realization presented a dilemma: We couldn’t eliminate or even significantly reduce these emissions directly because travel is such an integral part of our programs. In fact, we are likely to increase our travel, as our programs and student intake expand. We concluded that the best way to achieve carbon neutral status was to purchase carbon offsets, at least for the short term. By purchasing carbon offsets, we support projects that reduce the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere, pull carbon out of the atmosphere, or do both, via activities such as planting trees or installing fuel-efficient boilers.

Competing for Neutrality

Members of our CN+ committee—who include students, faculty, and staff—work to identify ways to offset our travel and commuting emissions and reduce emissions in other areas. In 2017, the CN+ committee asked faculty, students, and staff to vote for one among a set of selected carbon offset projects. This process gave our stakeholders a voice in how we reduced our carbon footprint, as well as provided an opportunity for experiential learning for our students.

In 2018, the committee introduced our first annual Carbon Offset Pitch Competition. Teams of one to five students from our undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs evaluated 26 carbon offset projects offered through Offsetters (, a Canadian company that provides organizations and individuals with sustainable carbon management and offset project solutions. Using a set of 11 criteria developed by the CN+ committee, each team chose a portfolio of projects that its members thought would best align with our goals. Teams submitted 90-second videos about their offset portfolios, as well as calculations of their portfolios’ collective environmental benefits. The committee chose five finalists whose projects demonstrated the greatest impact and best represented Gustavson’s four descriptive core pillars: international, innovative, integrative, and sustainable/socially responsible. Finalists’ recommendations included wind power projects in New Caledonia, a reforestation project on Quadra Island of the coast of British Columbia, and the installation of more efficient cookstoves in homes in Uganda.

For the second phase of the contest, students, faculty, and staff voted for their favorite offset portfolios. The winning portfolio included the Bundled Solar Power Project in India and the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project in our own province of British Columbia. By investing in these projects, we were able to offset Gustavson’s 796 tons of carbon emissions from the previous calendar year. The winning team received CAN$250 in gift cards from sustainable local businesses, five passes for a whale-watching trip offered by Eagle Wing Tours, and lunch with Eagle Wing’s execs.

“The Bundled Solar Power Project helps improve social and economic well-being for the surrounding communities in India,” explains Dawn Hancock, client engagement manager at Offsetters. “The Great Bear Forest Carbon Project provides jobs for First Nations communities of the region and helps fund community improvement projects.”

Among the First Nations that will benefit are the indigenous people known as Heiltsuk. Says Heiltsuk chief Marilyn Slett, “Whether it’s daily stewardship activities to protect important cultural and ecological resources, or long-term protection of a keystone species, carbon offset credit funds are supporting a sustainable way forward for us.”

For students, the offset pitch competition was an opportunity to engage in the carbon neutrality process in a concrete way. “We decided to take part in the competition because of our passion for the environment,” says business communications student Mikiya Hobbs, a member of the winning team, The Redeemers. The competition, she adds, was “an opportunity for students to have a say in how the school spends its money.”

Harnessing Change

For future Carbon Offset Pitch Competitions, we plan to ask students to connect their portfolios to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We might even ask them to explore the possibility of the school generating its own carbon offsets. We hope to increase the number of submissions and boost voter turnout through classroom voting stations.

The CN+ committee has done extensive research on best practices for reducing the carbon emissions of our flights, procuring more sustainable supplies, and making small day-to-day changes on campus that are customizable at the individual level. In January 2019, the committee added a focus on projects related to education and behavioral change throughout our community.

Now that we’ve achieved carbon neutrality, our next goal is to collaborate with other schools, whether to help them create their own competitions or establish behavioral change challenges. In early 2018, Gustavson worked with other departments at the university to host a Shake and Fold awareness campaign. Shake and Fold is a U.S.-based nonprofit that encourages people to use fewer paper towels.

We hope to continue to harness students’ insights regarding sustainability in our decision making and collaborate with academic colleagues at other schools as they engage in sustainability leadership initiatives. By working together, we can foster a new generation of business leaders who will embrace sustainable practices and have an increasingly positive impact on our world.

Rick Cotton and Simon Pek are co-chairs of the Carbon Neutrality Plus Committee at the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business in Oak Bay, British Columbia, Canada.

Rick Cotton
Associate Professor, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria
Simon Pek
Associate Professor, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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